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  • Writer's pictureSarah

Making sense of food labels

I'm aware that I have been saying we should become label checking ninja's for some time but as was recently pointed out to me they are confusing. Labels provide us with some really useful information, they have to, its the law. But remember they are also there to help sell the product! You need to look closely if you really want to understand what you are eating and also how do you then know if its enough, too much, good or bad? I've written this blog to try and explain and set you up for your first coloured belt in label checking.

How much sugar, salt and calories should we be eating? Here are the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for average adults of normal weight:

Food labels

Ingredients are listed in order of weight. The first ingredient has the greatest % content and the last the smallest. Food labels illustrate the fat, carbohydrate, sugar and calorie content per 100g. Remember that this gives you the percentage: 20g sugar per 100g = 20% sugar. How do you know what is a little and what is a lot when it comes to fat, sugar and salt?

Here is my simple guide


When buying starchy foods, such as bread, rice and pasta, look for wholegrain / whole wheat / wholemeal. Avoid any form of sugar, white or refined foods and look out for hidden starches in the ingredients list such as potato starch, corn starch, rice starch – all of these will be broken down into sugar by the body.

Sugar is known by many different names.

Glucose fructose sucrose dextrose maltose lactose isoglucose(this one was used to describe a high fructose corn syrup) syrup honey treacle agave fruit juice dates dried fruit raisins sultanas, I have even seen the term "Florida Crystals" being used! I'm aware of 53 there are probably more.

Although really important, particularly if you have a condition such as diabetes, I'm not going to cover Glycaemic index or Glycaemic load here, if you are interested feel free to reach out to me.

What I want to say is to be label savvy. When you see a claim in large print that says "No added sugar" or "30% less sugar" take a close look at the label. The manufacturer will want the low-sugar version to match the taste of the original as closely as possible. A popular trick is to add maltodextrin a polysaccharide and therefore technically a starch, not a sugar. However it is still broken down into sugar very quickly! When you see “50% fewer calories”, read the label. The product will be lower in fat than the original but has to be higher in carbohydrate. For example, a packet of crisps – made of fried potato slices and salt – is not a healthy food and is high in calories. A packet of ‘healthy’ crisps right next to it may be lower in calories and ‘baked’ but contains: potato starch, maize starch, rice starch and maltodextrin. Is that a healthy crisp?

The problem with calories

It’s not that calories don’t matter at all but they matter much less than we have been led to believe. Metabolism is much too complex to be reduced to the simple calorie equation of:

“calories in < calories out = weight loss”


“calories in > calories out = weight gain”

This simplistic approach dismisses the metabolic effects foods have once we have eaten them, suggesting that the result of ingesting 150 kcal from a fizzy drink has the same effect on our weight as 150 kcal from raw almonds, would be wrong and is simply not the case.

A quick word on "Fat" labels, see what I did there.

Trans Fats

Avoid anything on a food label that says ‘hydrogenated’ – including ‘partially hydrogenated’. These are trans fats, damaged fats, which are unhealthy.

Low fat

Items with no more than 3g fat per 100g may be labelled ‘low fat’. Reducing the fat content, of foods dramatically reduces their calorie content, because fat has 9kcal/g, whereas carbohydrates have only 4kcal/g. Removing fat from foods affects their flavour and texture, which is usually remedied by adding sugar. Result: a lower calorie product but with a higher GL than the original. This is bad.


these are colourings, flavourings, preservatives, thickeners,stabalisers etc. Additives are chemicals that do not normally occur in natural food, you know the stuff, it's what our bodies were designed to digest. Even though EU deems some "Safe" and gives them an E number. They can still have effects. For example E155 can trigger asthma in some people. In general, reducing your additive intake is a good thing and you can do this by eating less processed food and more whole organic foods.

Finally Lite foods

I've been trying for sometime to understand what they are Lite in exactly. Colour?

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